Wednesday, December 12, 2012

How Do I Love These Books? Let Me Count the Ways: I Know This Much Is True

For "How Do I Love These Books?  Let Me Count the Ways" I’ll be revisiting the first times I read books I love and reflecting on what connects me so strongly to those books.

“I never said I was loveable.  Never said I wasn’t a son of a bitch.”--Domenick Birdsey in I Know This Much Is True

I’m going to have to be a little bit clinical to get through this post about I Know This Much Is True, because the connection I have with the novel is so personal and painful that I can’t get too far into it without sounding hyperbolic or losing the point of this exercise.  The first few times I started this post I burst into tears and had to abandon it.  So all I’ll say is that I read it during a homesick first semester at college and that my own family rivals Dominick Birdsey’s as far as the darker issues go.  I will also say that this is my favorite novel by far.  I have books that I love, buy, re-read, and recommend to friends, but this book is a million miles away from those.

I love the language in this book.  The descriptions are haunting; the emotions are raw and on the surface; and the alternating voices of Domenick the child, the young man, and in the present (with a lengthy cameo by Domenick’s grandfather Domenico) are flawlessly executed.  The meandering of the story as Domenick goes about his ruptured daily life, dipping from time to time into his memory, is as natural as conversation.

This book makes me hurt.  A lot.  The horrible things in Domenick’s past make for tough reading and remind me of times of my own suffering.  But if the book had only been sad or dark I wouldn’t call it my favorite today.  The novel ends with hope, an upward trajectory out of the past.  When I read the last line I wept with relief at the pure notion of possibility.  Now just the first pages are enough to get me teary-eyed.  Wally Lamb has written a beautiful story weaved within it a message I sorely needed when I first read it that still resonates with me today—I am not alone.  Be steady, be patient, work to be a better person, and you may always have hope.

The characters are real and whole, they make terrible mistakes but strive for goodness.  They do what they think is right.  They learn by going where they have to go.  Reading it exposes old wounds to the air, but in doing so it keeps them from festering and reminds me of the potential for healing.  I love this book like I love some people.  And that is really all I can say about it.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

How Do I Love These Books? Let Me Count the Ways: The Hunger Games

For "How Do I Love These Books?  Let Me Count the Ways" I’ll be revisiting the first times I read books I love and reflecting on what connects me so strongly to those books.

The Hunger Games series
I was alone in a foreign country when I found The Hunger Games.  Not technically alone—I was a student in a graduate program, an exile for a month.  I didn’t know anything about Madrid except that I knew everything.  History, art, food, music, culture.  Turns out that’s nothing when you don’t know where the grocery store is.  Daily life doesn’t hinge on a deep understanding of political history.  I had my own little dorm room, private bathroom, true grad school luxury.  I had classes in the mornings, incredible classes, but my afternoons and evenings were free (I didn’t have to do homework since I was basically auditing).  With that free time I went to museums, walked the streets, and missed my home.  I pulled, baffled, on the closed doors of the banks at 3 p.m.  I went to restaurants at 10 p.m., the lone early dinner patron.  

Look, a small-town girl in any city is gasping for air anyway.  I spoke the language, I knew where I was, but I was lost.  Not map-lost, confused as to how my life had brought me to the point that I was 4000 miles from my husband and my family, in the pursuit of enhancing a teaching career that was already on the rise without these desperate measures.  In my lonely moments in my closet-sized room I read.  I downloaded Dracula to my iPad.  It was smutty and fun, but it didn’t last long.  I read fast, y’all.  Not sure what to read next, I saw that I had a free preview of The Hunger Games.   Those weird hours between lunch and bedtime were long, I figured, what the hell?  Everyone had been talking about it.  So I read the first chapter.  And then I raced down to the first floor where the WiFi actually worked and immediately bought the book.  I spent the next few days in an ecstasy of reading that I had not had in quite some time.  
There were so many fascinating moments in that month, not the least of which was my doomed search for ice (at a bar!  They laughed at me!).  I made friends with a few darling girls who were my classmates, with whom I had some truly unforgettable evenings.  But perhaps my need for stronger connections at that time precipitated my love of The Hunger Games.  Perhaps my isolation fed my connection with the characters, who became so vibrant and real to me in that time.  Haymitch and Peeta stand out.  And that’s why I connected so strongly with The Hunger Games, because of characters who feel so real they’re in the room, breathing and blinking (or, in the case of Katniss, annoying me to death).  I raced ahead, read and re-read, spending as much time with them as I could.  Yes, I watched a lot of Psych and Parks and Rec, not to mention having actual real-world adventures with my friends and on my own.  But I did spend a good amount of time with Peeta and Haymitch and Cinna (and, yes, Katniss), too.

Would I have had the same connections with the book had I not been in such a unique situation?  It’s hard to say.  A similar thing happened with the Harry Potter series, The Handmaid’s Tale, and I Know This Much Is True.  And Bridget Jones, for that matter.  Blog entries on all of those and more forthcoming.  But the pattern is clear: the huge books in my life came in mostly with enormous emotional connections.  They carried the seeds of things I needed to make sense of the new world in which I found myself.  They helped me adjust, allowed me to escape and then gently steered me back out into the world a little more enlightened, a little less afraid.

For the record, Catching Fire is my favorite of the series.